Australia takes on UNESCO in Great Barrier Reef battle

July 22, 2021
The Australian government and a United Nations body are facing off this week over whether the Great Barrier Reef is
The Australian government and a United Nations body are facing off this week over whether the Great Barrier Reef is "in danger" of losing its "outstanding universal value." — Courtesy file photo

SYDNEY — The Australian government and a United Nations body are facing off this week over whether the Great Barrier Reef is "in danger" of losing its "outstanding universal value."

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)'s World Heritage Committee is scheduled to vote on Friday on whether the reef, which is on the World Heritage List, should be officially labeled as "in danger." The designation means the site is under threat, and if action isn't taken to address concerns, it could lose its World Heritage status.

Australia has desperately tried to avoid that scenario through a flurry of last-minute lobbying, including taking ambassadors on a snorkeling trip to the reef.

Its efforts may have paid off. Twelve out of the 21 countries on the Committee appeared to be against applying the "in danger" rating to the Barrier Reef, according to a proposed amendment posted to the UNESCO site on Tuesday.

But the pressure to impose the rating is still coming from scientists and celebrities, with a letter published the same day signed by 13 public figures — actors, former politicians and journalists — pushing the committee to "endorse UNESCO's recommendation."

"There is still time to save the Great Barrier Reef, but Australia and the world must act now," reads the letter, signed by "Aquaman" actor Jason Momoa and ocean explorer Philippe Cousteau, among others.

Battle for the reef

The Great Barrier Reef spans nearly 133,000 square miles (345,000 square kilometers) off Australia's northeastern coast and is home to more than 1,600 species of fish and 600 species of soft and hard corals. A vital marine ecosystem, it also contributes $6.4 billion annually to Australia's economy and supports 64,000 jobs, according to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

But a series of natural disasters and the growing effects of climate change have severely impacted the reef, including widespread coral bleaching. An Australian government five-year survey in 2019 found the condition of the natural wonder had deteriorated from "poor" to "very poor."

In a report published on June 21, a UNESCO monitoring mission said that despite the Australian government's work to improve the reef's situation, "there is no possible doubt that the property is facing ascertained danger."

But the Australian government has strongly objected to UNESCO's conclusion. Environment Minister Sussan Ley flew to Europe in July as part of a last-ditch attempt to convince the other 20 members of the World Heritage to vote against the measure. Australia is currently part of the 21-country rotating committee.

Last week, Australia's official reef ambassador Warren Entsch took a number of ambassadors, including a number from countries voting on the World Heritage Committee, to the Great Barrier Reef for a snorkeling trip.

In an amendment proposed on Tuesday, 12 countries on the committee appeared to back a suggestion to not impose an "in danger" rating on the Barrier Reef, but no final decision has been made.

In a statement, a spokesman for Ley said while in France she had met delegates from a number of countries.

"Australia's position remains that the Great Barrier Reef is the best-managed reef in the world, supported by more than $3 billion of Commonwealth and State Government funding. Australia is concerned that the draft listing process did not include appropriate levels of consultation or a reactive mission," the spokesman said.

But Dr. Fanny Douvere, head of the World Heritage Center's Marine Programme, defended the "in danger" rating as "unbiased" and "scientifically-based."

She said no matter how the World Heritage Council voted on Friday, UNESCO's draft decision that the reef was "in danger" would still represent their considered opinion.

"The evidence is not something that we're investigating, the evidence is something that is very clearly described," she said.

"It would simply not have been credible not to alert the international community about the situation." — CNN

July 22, 2021
10 hours ago

Houthis continue to fight despite ceasefire offers because it suits them: UK ambassador to Yemen

12 hours ago

US announces nearly $200mn in new humanitarian aid for Somalia

12 hours ago

Landmark Vatican fraud trial begins as cardinal faces charges over London property deal